With fingers raised in blessing and left palm resting upon an orb, this image of Salvator Mundi is made of feathers and gold. It was created by indigenous craftsmen in central Mexico, working under the watchful eye European-born friars. The iconography of the blessing Christ has European origins; its visual model was most likely a print, perhaps an engraving that friars brought to New Spain with their religious books and other works of art. The multi-colored feathers that comprise this “painting” were acquired via trade networks established in pre-Hispanic times. Also of pre-Hispanic origin are the techniques for working feathers into images. In the century before this work was created, the Aztec imperial rulers commissioned “feather paintings” of extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship, prized for their ephemeral and shimmering qualities. One can imagine how this later feathered image, when hung upon a sanctuary wall and lit by candles, would allow Christ to appear, a holy apparition in front of the eyes of worshippers.
The friars who commissioned such works did so for many reasons. Their own aesthetic appreciation of Aztec feather-working played a role. In addition, they needed to demonstrate—both in Spanish America and in Europe— their “success” in converting native people and in turning indigenous hands to Christian work. The indigenous craftsmen who made works such as the Salvator Mundi must have had their own ideas about such creative projects. The translation of a Christian print into an image of feathers and gold required that they re-imagine the purposes and aesthetics of feather working. While Christian iconography was a relatively recent introduction, the use of feather-works in religious rituals, including those involving sacrifice, had roots in the pre-Hispanic past. Thus, in the creation of the Salvator Mundi, its artists joined in the long, and often inchoate, process of recasting indigenous beliefs and practices into new parameters established by the colonial church and state. At the same time, the friars expanded their own notions of aesthetic beauty and of the possibilities in the expression of religious ideas.
Estrada de Gerlero, Elena Isabel. 1994. “La plumaria, expresión artística por excelencia.” In México en el mundo de las colecciones de Arte (Nueva España, vol. 1). Pp. 72-117. Mexico City: El Gobierno de la República.
Russo, Alessandra, 2002. “Plumes of Sacrifice: Transformations in Sixteenth-Century Mexican Feather Art.”RES 42 (Autumn): 226-250.